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Plush Von Plush (the ) Asks:
I’m a big fan of the RPG 13th Age, but one thing I’ve always had trouble with is how to handle the Icon Relationship Rolls.
How would the Angry GM handle this mechanic? (Assuming that just ignoring it wasn’t an option.) The two main solutions suggested in the book—giving out free magic items and “re-flavoring” encounters to reflect the involvement of one icon instead of another—don’t really appeal to me. But then again, I’m not as good of a GM as you are.
First of all, let me say this: Plush Von Plush is the name I was given. I didn’t make that one up. Also, I’m not sure why PVP feels the need to point out they are “the ” nor the significance of the angle brackets. I’m pretty much just quoting this verbatim.
Now, shocking as this may be, I’ve actually got some experience with 13th Age. I play – and run – lots of games. And 13th Age is cool. Well, the game is cool. It’s got a lot of cool elements. But the rulebook is kind of a hot mess. I wouldn’t fail it on presentation, but it would definitely get a “see me after class” stamped on the cover of that book.
The mechanic to which Von Plush refers works thusly. There are thirteen major, iconic power centers in the world of 13th Age called Icons. They are bigger than powerful NPCs, but smaller than gods. You’ve got the Dwarf King, the Archmage, the Lord of Orcs, the High Priestess, and so on. When you create a PC in 13th Age, you establish relationships with some of these forces. Relationships can be positive or negative and generally represents how that Icon’s agents and forces view the PC. If you have a positive relationship with the Dwarf King, dwarves will usually view you as an ally, soldiers of the dwarven kingdom will give you some leniency because they consider you one of the good guys. Stuff like that.
One of the ways in which the Icon relationships get used – and this is the which the is referring – are in Relationship Rolls. At the start of every session, every player rolls six-sided dice for each of their relationships (positive or negative). The stronger the relationship, the more dice get rolled. 6’s indicate that relationship will benefit the PC in some way during that session. 5’s indicate that the relationship will come up and there will probably be a benefit, but it will also add some sort of complication factor or cost.
Now, this SEEMS simple enough, but one of the problems with the 13th Age rule book is that it doesn’t seem to know what the hell to do with it’s mechanics sometimes. It spends pages and pages, for example, on a very simple mechanic (actually, it’s barely a mechanic) called the One Unique Thing. Most of that page real estate is taken up with caveats and reassurances that the One Unique Thing isn’t going to break anything and the rest is taken up by waffling about how it should be used and how much freedom players should have with it. It’s really a mess.
So, it’s no wonder that Plushie here doesn’t know what to do with Relationship Rolls. Because the advice is all over the place. Here’s the deal. The book advises you to use the Relationship Rolls as aids to building a story. If a character rolls three 6’s for her Elf Queen relationship, that relationship should really be front and center in the adventure. The adventure should be about the Elf Queen and what the Elf Queen wants and the PC and how and why she is in good with the Elf Queen.
Because of the role the Icons play in the world, the Relationship Rolls have a LOT of power. Or they should. The Icons are really the movers and shapers of the world and the PCs end up being their proxies or their enemies or both. And so those relationships write the story on a fundamental level. The adventures should be ABOUT those relationships.
But that’s tough to pull off if you’re asking your players to roll these dice at the beginning of the game. Because, really, to do it right, to do it justice, you should come with a blank sheet paper, roll the relationships, and make up the session or adventure on the fly based on those die rolls. And that’s extremely hard to do. And even harder to do well. Some GMs are awesome at that level of improv. I can do it. But that’s part skill and part talent and part art. And I wouldn’t wish it on any GM. I certainly wouldn’t build a mechanic into the core of my game that demanded that every GM pull that sort of s$&% off.
And that’s where the 13th Age rulebook gets into trouble. Because it knows what it is asking GMs to do. And it doesn’t want to ask them to do that. Rightly so. So, it follows up the basic rules of Relationship Rolls (p. 179) with a section called “Improvisational Techniques.” And these are ways to use the Relationship Rolls that DON’T amount to pulling entire adventures out of your a$& based on a handful of die rolls. And those amount to things like letting the Relationship Rolls determine minor details in the story, handing out magical items based on good rolls, giving out important information, and so on. And it even ends by saying “if you can’t figure out anything else, just use a magical spirit that can just show up and do whatever the Relationship Roll needs.”
Except for the “minor story details,” it all amounts to “roll to get a random prize” (because information and other boons are prizes too). And as P. Von Plush notes, it’s all highly unsatisfying. Because you can tell the Relationship Rolls SHOULD do more.
The key is in a throwaway remark at the bottom of page 179. If you’re not comfortable improvising whole adventures out of nothing, roll Relationship Rolls at the end of your sessions.
That’s the trick. Have the PCs roll their Relationships at the end of every session and use that to plan the next session. Fill out the little relationship chart, note the relationships that will be important, and use that to build your next session. And, when you do that, you don’t have to improvise. You can make the Icons and the relationships central. If everyone’s relationship with The Diabolist comes up 5’s and 6’s, your next adventure should be about foiling a diabolists plot. And the allies of the party, the enemies of the diabolist, should show up to help. Especially if other relationships come up. If one player’s Priestess relationship comes up a 6 and the Diabolist is featuring heavy, that can write the hook for the adventure. The Priestess’ agents have discovered an opportunity to strike a major blow against the cultists’ agents and they ask the PCs to take that opportunity. If a bunch of different Icons come up with 5’s and there are no 6’s, maybe the next adventure is a mess of proxy battles. A bunch of different Icons’ agents are all fighting over the save thing, Battle of the Five Armies style, and the PCs are caught in the middle.
In addition to just rolling Relationships in advance so you can plan an adventure around those rolls, I’d also recommend that you think in terms of adventures, not sessions. If an adventure takes two or three sessions, don’t roll Relationship Rolls between each one. Use the Relationship Rolls to plan the adventure as a whole. Because the relationships will be playing such a stronger role in your adventures to begin with, you can get away with this.
But, improvisation IS a fun skill to develop. And it’s useful. So even if you go that route, maybe, at the start of each session after the first in a long adventure, let the PCs pick one relationship each and roll the dice for it. If some 6’s or 5’s come up, try to work in a minor event or two based on some of them. Maybe the prisoner that the heroes rescue is a Dwarf Soldier and he gives the party valuable information because he trusts the PC that rolled a 6 on his relationship with the Dwarf Lord.
You can even take this further. You can write in a few nebulous, vague, uncertain things into your adventure and let the Relationship Rolls influence them. So, during that whole Diabolist adventure that you rolled for at the end of the previous adventure, which you know will take several weeks, maybe you have a scene where a the PCs are going to explore the Diabolist’s catacombs and they can rescue a prisoner. Maybe, you leave the prisoner’s identity vague and wait until the Relationship Rolls at the start of the session to decide who they are and how helpful they can be. If a player rolls a 5 on his Elf Queen relationship, the prisoner is an elf with useful information, but she’s been crippled by the depradations of the cultists and the PCs have to work to protect her (or leave her behind).
Another thing you can do in addition to rolling Relationship Rolls at the end of one adventure to help write the next is to allow the players to use their relationships more proactively. If the PCs are in trouble, they can try to make contact with agents of a particular Icon to get aid. At that point, mid game, instead of a skill test, let them roll a relationship roll. 6’s indicate they get their help. 5’s indicate that the contact only complicates things. That makes the contact risky so the players won’t come to rely on it.
The point, though, is that 13th Age is really only loosely a role-playing system. Hell, if you have never played a d20 game or D&D 4E, you’d have a hard time learning the game from the book. It explains so little. But what 13th Age really has going for it is a pile of neat tools that can be used in a lot of different ways. The reason the book is so vague and waffling about One Unique Things, Backgrounds, and Icon Relationships is because they can be used in a lot of different ways and every GM should feel free to use them differently. And honestly, the Icon Relationships system can get yanked right out of 13th Age and get added to almost any RPG with those sorts of power centers and factions.